Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! –Rusty Morrison
Rusty Morrison: The poetry editors here at Omnidawn (myself included) are the blind readers who screen for our poetry contests, and then send our selected manuscripts to the judge. We were delighted that A Timeshare was the manuscript selected by Timothy Donnelly for our First/Second Book Contest. The manuscript demonstrated fluency in current conventions of craft, yet showed, too, an infectious freshness, an alertness, a willingness to break through what is normative in poetry culture, which is one of the qualities that most excite when reading first and second books. But rarely do we find that freshness to be so fully integrated in a manuscript. Can you discuss your relationship to craft: have you been writing poems like those in A Timeshare for some time? Where did the book begin?
Margaret Ross: The poems were written between 2009 and 2014 but the way they’re written started with a feeling I first got in 1996 from a movie called Powers of Ten. The opening shot is two actors by a lake and the camera zooms out by a power of ten every ten seconds. A meter, ten meters, a hundred, etc., the ground becomes the planet, the solar system, galaxy, until the screen’s at the scale of the observable universe. Then it zooms in and moves by a power of negative ten into one actor’s hand, recognizable tissue down to quarks in an atom’s proton. The whole thing takes less than ten minutes. I was ten and watching, I felt something like what Bishop describes in the waiting room, realizing for the first time “how ‘unlikely’” it is to be simultaneously floating and stuck, that every second of life is as vertiginous as it is claustrophobic. Of course it’s something you keep realizing as your relationship to space keeps changing. Not only outer but inner space too, and places, rooms, durations. The movie moved along a vertical axis but the way it construed a person as participant in multiple scales is as true along the horizontal, the temporal. This shifting sense of what scale you’re living at—you’re deep inside yourself one moment, then close to somebody else, then to multiple others, to a memory, a history, an object, objects, an economy, a different person, a system, a power structure, an environment. And the question of what feels proportionate—emotionally, ethically, actually—gets constantly recalibrated.
When I began writing I wanted to write towards that question. Each poem is attached to a scene from which the feeling comes, but reckoning with that scene involves moving outwards or inwards, backwards or forwards in time, so there are other images and voices, other floors, and all of them sharing in the space of the poem as they’re coterminous in the space outside it. Or that was the ambition. What excited me were these unlikely likenesses, these points of contact between apparently distant scales. Everything more implicated than it is alone. Reality feels plotless but not patternless, and poetry seems to me the most accurate means of perceiving those patterns in their true range and simultaneity.
RM: I’d like to talk about the seriousness of so much of the subject matter in this text. The assertions made by this lyric subject are by turns examined and subverted in writing that reflects both personal and social critique. Though I experience great equipoise in the technical prowess of the work, there is an equal sense of impending threat in the subject matter. That convergence of subject matter and form produces a writing that I can’t put down. Rare to call a poetry book a “page turner” but A Timeshare is that for me. Could you talk about the marriage of subject matter to form, and the choices you made regarding the vaulting range of subjects that constellate into the matter in this text? If it’s appropriate, you might talk about the title of the manuscript in answering this question.
MR: I think form is a kind of realism. The pressures its shape exerts in a poem are mimetic of pressures exerted in life by other formal structures—days, years, lifespan. Shared forms we inhabit whether we want to or not, and each a share of something larger.
Writing, I was interested in the regular stanza as a mimesis of clock time: this system of uniform containers which holds the trivial alongside the serious. The equipoise feels like part of the threat—that eerie mathematical equivalence of the hour in which something terrible happens and the hour in which nothing does. I know stanza means ‘room’ but I think of it as ‘minute.’ Regular stanzas can seem the temporal measures to which everyone’s subject. Then sentences counterpoint the stanza’s cold absolute with a warm measure determined by breath and thought and feeling. There’s a lot of enjambment—in an earlier draft of the book, not a single line was endstopped—and the tension between stanza and sentence to my mind reflects similar tensions in lived experience. I can’t choose how long my minutes are, but I can try to choose how I fill them.
That fundamental conflict inscribed in the form is the common threat propelling the subject matter. So the poems are about choice and stricture in daily life, and the way the limits and extent of each shapes relationships, to individuals as well as to collective bodies. The vaulting comes, I think, from wanting to depict real time, which can feel sinisterly intricate. It gets back to the multiple scales in the question above—where to live from. What to see. How to proceed from there.
RM: I’d love it if you would choose a poem or two that have particularly powerful significance for you and talk about the work. What experience or convergence of experiences initiated the work? What did the writing of the poem demand of you? Change in you? Are there poems in the book that surprised you? Frightened you? “Devil’s Optics” is a poem I’m curious about, and interested in, since its tone is playful as it begins, its proposed subject seemingly so simple, its repeating language almost childlike, nursery-rhyme like, and yet its movements, the assumptions it describes only to disrupt, eddy from the language on the page like ripples from a stone dropped in a deep pool.
MR: Yes, “Devil’s Optics” did begin thinking of nursery rhymes, also nonsense verse, both of which I love for their music and for how good they feel to say and for the way they know repetition is double-edged, as familiarizing as it is estranging. You repeat something and you hear it more carefully, but it doesn’t take too many more repetitions before the definition drains out of the words and the sounds sound senseless. So this process of listening more carefully and getting to know something is also a process of unknowing it or, perhaps, getting to know the unknown in it. It’s something that preoccupies me, since my life as I experience it seems to be made up of repetitions, voluntary and involuntary, trivial and not. Does it get more familiar or more strange? A lot of the other poems play with these sorts of lived repetitions, “Personal Life,” “Age Control Concentrate,” “Dissolution,” “Human Resources,” “Refresh Rate.” Actually, that last poem was once one of a pair of poems that each began with the same stanza, then proceeded into difference. I was wondering what it would be to rhyme entire poems, I think, rather than just words within a poem.
RM: Could you talk about any writers &/or artists &/or thinkers who have influenced you in this work? (in what direct or indirect ways have you felt this occur?)
MR: There were some things I read over and over. I know they influenced me, but any description of that influence sounds flimsy compared to the real effect they had. Many felt talismanic. I’d sleep with them in my bed. Beckett’s short plays “Come and Go” and “What Where,” and this old anonymous poem, “Maiden in the Moor Lay,” for the way they find the highest stakes in the simplest repetition. Bergvall’s “Via” does this too, and Ukeles’ notion of maintenance art. Writers who love objects, not even interesting objects, just the ordinary things you touch and move around, overlook, but that imply everything about the life they furnish: all Moore, especially “People’s Surroundings,” Adnan, Ponge, Shōnagun, Marvell. Hejinian’s My Life, Woolf. There was long prose I was moving slowly through, figuring out what the sentence does to time—Remembrance of Things Past and The Pale King, which was set in the Midwest where I was living then. That landlocked feeling. Syntax as spirit in Baldwin, James, Duras, Melville, Kincaid. Eisenberg stories. On Being Blue. The more I think back, the more I think of, more than I can list. I was in school for part of the time I was writing, so I had the luxury of endless libraries. I kept out Dickinson’s letters and Yi-fu Tuan’s Space and Place long overdue. I’d never read about painting before and started to, to learn about simultaneity. I kept renewing The Sight of Death by T. J. Clark and Didi-Huberman’s Fra Angelico.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything you are willing to share that might not be in your short bio that is published in the book?
MR: I could talk a bit about what I’m working on now—I just got back from living in Nanjing for a year where I was working with the poet Huang Fan to translate his poetry into English. We’ve continued by email and in Vermont this winter, thanks to a VSC Luce Fellowship. Huang Fan is a great poet and one I hope more English-language writers will get to read soon. He has a series titled after common objects—“Spoons,” “Red Grapes,” “The Middle-Aged Beard”—that totally disarm you. Otherwise, I’ve been living in New Haven, teaching creative writing at Yale. The poetry class has been especially fun since it’s for whatever reason made up almost entirely of computer science majors. They have all this knowledge of form and pattern and sequence that’s deeply applicable to poems.
RM: You were instrumental in the selection of the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Would you describe your considerations in your arrival at the choice for this cover image? How does this cover align with your intentions for the book?
MR: The image is by Umbo and is called “Mystery of the Street.” I admire its equanimity, how it accesses some strange other order within, rather than at the expense of, the ordinary order of the street. So the metaphysical and the mundane are parallel, level. It reminds me of the long shadow in the readymade phrases many of the poems were written through—assisted living, futures exchange, timeshare. Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Rusty Morrison’s most recent book is Beyond the Chainlink. Her collection After Urgency won Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize. Book of the Given is available from Noemi Press. the true keeps calm biding its story won Ahsahta’s Sawtooth Prize, the Academy of American Poet’s James Laughlin Award, the Northern California Book Award and the DiCastagnola Award from Poetry Society of America. Whethering won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. She has received the Bogin, Hemley, Winner and DiCastagnola Awards from the PSA. She is co-publisher of Omnidawn.
Margaret Ross is the author of A Timeshare (winner of the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize, selected by Timothy Donnelly). Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, Conjunctions, Fence an